Children Make Us Miserable

The evidence really doesn't look great for the idea that kids are the key to contentment. I just got Arthur Brooks' new book Gross National Happiness in the mail. Brooks quite rightly points out that happiness research doesn't really do much to support conventional liberal policies, and he gives it a right-wing spin, as far as the data allow. But the data don't allow much celebration of the happiness-value of children:

On the surface, it looks as though kids make people a bit happier: Adults with one or two kids are about 3 percentage points more likely to say they are happy than childless adults. But this gap is an illusion created by the fact that many happiness-causing things are also correlated with whether one has kids — marriage, age, religion, politics, and so forth. When we correct for these things, the relationship between kids and happiness actually reverses itself, and we see that children make people unhappy. If two adults in 2004 were the same in age, sex, income, marital status, education, race, religion, and politics — but one had kids and the other did not — the parent would be about 7 percentage points less likely to report being very happy.

The more children you have, on average, the unhappier you get — up to a point. The average happiness of adults — correcting for all the factors mentioned above — falls as more children are added to the family. …


None of this is to say that people with kids are unhappy people. There are many things in a parent's life that bring great joy. For example, spending time away from kids.

Brooks points out that global self-reports can be misleading, because people often misremember how they have felt doing various activities. But experience sampling makes it look even worse:

Using these techniques, researchers have collected data on how people — particularly women — experience life with their children. And what emerges is that the enjoy almost everything more than they enjoy taking care of their kids. …

How about Bryan's thesis?

Of course, we tell ourselves, having young children is difficult — but we will experience rewards when they are older, right? Probably so — although one British study suggests that senior citizens get more satisfaction from frequent contact with friends thans they do from spending time with their grown children. Al least once children have grown up, they seem, on average, to stop lowering the happiness of their parents.

I'm afraid the case for breeding, whatever it might be, isn't going to be based in the pleasure of it.